One thing all the beer and pub writers from the nineteen-sixties and seventies agree on is this: the theme pub is an abomination and a terrible threat to the ‘proper’ pub. Derek Cooper’s The Beverage Report (1970) has a whole chapter on them.
You only have to turn your back on a pub for a few days now and it has undergone some bizarre transformation. A bewildered beer-drinker sent me this sociological note: ‘A pub that I once knew well was called the Kentish Horseman. Imagine my surprise this week to find it has blossomed out under the name of The Escape. The motif: RAF escapes. The walls are hung with with such trivia as flying uniforms, photos of renowned escapers and Mae Wests etc, etc…’
He also lists pubs themed around the wild west, the roaring twenties, medieval minstrels, torture dungeons, vikings, sailing ships, Kon Tiki, trawlers… you get the idea.
A handful of theme pubs still exist. The Sherlock Holmes on Northumberland Avenue in London is one we’ve visited and it’s not so bad, the Victorian theme happening to overlap quite nicely with what we’d expect of any pub. Penzance has a couple of very ‘piratey’ pubs, as it happens. There are also plenty of international Irish, Australian and German pubs.
Other than these odd freaks, though, the theme pub didn’t really have legs. They were presumably expensive to fit out, each requiring unique design work, and at the mercy of changes in fashion. (The Roaring Twenties are out and the publican is stuck with an oil painting of Al Capone.) At some point, they were given the heave-ho, and the theme for most pubs became ‘pubbiness’: brown wood, sepia-toned prints, ‘useless shelves’ and Victoriana, even in buildings less than thirty years old.
But… is ‘craft beer’ a kind of theme?